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One Man’s Trash: Practical Solutions for Workplace Clutter

Learn more about how to improve organization through workplace accommodations

From the desk of Brittany Lambert, M.S., CRC, Consultant - Sensory Team


Some employees are able to thrive in untidy work environments. While the stacks of documents, books, and memos strewn about their desks may appear unmanageable to coworkers, these employees likely know exactly where to find what they need at a given moment.  For others, however, disorganization and clutter can contribute to significant problems in the workplace. An office or cubicle in disarray may interfere with an employee’s ability to concentrate, complete tasks in a timely manner, and meet performance and conduct standards.

Accommodations may be necessary if an employee’s ability to keep a tidy workstation is related to a disability. One particular condition many associate with clutter is hoarding disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (APA, 2013), hoarding disorder is marked by difficulty in parting with possessions, regardless of the actual value of the items. Individuals with this condition experience significant distress when attempting to part with items, which often leads to an accumulation. Hoarding behaviors can carry over into the workplace, making it difficult for the individual to maintain an orderly work area. Conditions that impact executive functioning, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, and depression, can impair organizational skills and contribute to the build-up of clutter.

How should an employer address the mess? The first step could be identifying problems caused by the untidy workspace. Is the employee meeting performance and conduct standards? Does the clutter distract or disrupt other employees? Are there any health and safety concerns? These are just a few of the factors an employer should consider when determining what action may be appropriate. Let’s look at a few practical examples:

Situation

Jim, a customer service representative in a large call center, has accumulated a significant amount of items in his cubicle. Many of the items seem to have no practical use, such as expired coupons, outdated fliers, and shopping bags. Several piles of newspapers are stacked underneath the cubicle. Some of Jim’s coworkers have complained that the items are beginning to spill into their workstations.

Solution

Jim’s employer meets with him to discuss the cubicle concerns. Because he works in an open office, the employer insists that his workspace must be kept neat and orderly so as not to distract or disrupt others. During the meeting, it is revealed that Jim has been diagnosed with hoarding disorder. Upon learning that the concerning behaviors are disability-related, the employer initiates the interactive process. As an accommodation, the employer allows Jim to bring a support person into the office to assist him with removing unneeded items. Jim also agrees to a weekly check of his cubicle to help prevent further accumulation of items.

Situation

Laura is an accountant at a legal firm. Her private office is often cluttered, with documents and office supplies scattered on her desk. Despite the disorganized appearance of her work station, Laura’s work is always completed in a neat and timely manner.

Solution

Laura’s employer determines there is no reason to believe her cluttered office is negatively impacting her job performance. Because she does not share the space with coworkers, the mess does not cause significant disruption. The employer concludes that further action is not warranted at this time.

Situation

Felipe, a college admissions assistant with ADHD, must collect and organize incoming documentation from applicants. He is struggling to maintain an orderly filing system. The documents have begun to form an unorganized pile on his desk. When asked to provide information on a particular applicant, Felipe is unable to find the appropriate documentation.

Solution

Felipe’s employer suggests the use of color-coded folders and labels for the admissions information. The employer also agreed to provide a checklist that Felipe could use to ensure all relevant documents were included in the folders.

If you have questions about a particular workplace situation, feel free to contact JAN for an individualized consultation. For additional information, see the following resources:

cluttered desk